Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam is starting a series of roundtable discussions focused on revamping higher education in his state. The first question, he says, should be to the business community: “What are you not getting from us that you need?”
While that question is important, it’s really what follows that counts. Communication between community colleges and their local businesses is vital, but talk is just that; it needs to be followed by concrete actions and plans that not only identify local workforce needs, but outline how the college’s educational offerings will address those needs.
Beyond that, community colleges need to be flexible and responsive—labor demands might change, or the skills required for local jobs might become more technological in a year. Maria Flynn of Jobs For The Future writes about a frustrated employer who wanted to work with a community college, but the college moved too slowly. By the time college officials approved and implemented new programs, the employer’s demands had changed. “I fear that this is a common situation. In order for community colleges to be effective, they need to be agile and responsive,” Flynn writes. If not, they will churn out graduates to jobs that they can’t get. We’ve heard more than once about the heaps of open, available positions nationwide, waiting for qualified workers to fill them. While some of that is certainly attributed to applicants who simply do not have the necessary credentials, some—too—could be blamed on a lack of appropriate, updated skills.
In 2005, when Gateway Technical College in Wisconsin was redesigning its educational program for auto technicians, officials decided to partner with Snap-On Inc., which is located nearby. The college and business worked jointly on curriculum development to include new credentials, like torque certification, and updated lab facilities that have newer tools that graduates would be asked to use once working in the industry. Now, those auto technician standards are in place at more than 60 colleges across the country, says Snap-On CEO Nick Pinchuk. “We have to be active with community colleges, in partnership, to make sure they know what’s actually important to deliver jobs. … We are the people who provide the jobs, and only business knows what’s actually important,” he said during a panel on workforce development last month.
I wrote about a similar community college-business partnership in Charlotte, N.C., where applicants to Siemens Energy often had manufacturing or shop experience but lacked the specialized training needed to operate machinery for gas turbines, which the plant workers produced. Siemens communicated that to Central Piedmont Community College, which got a state grant to offer training in just that. Now, the community college provides a steady flow of qualified employees to the Charlotte facility.
Not just communication, but action, like this is becoming more crucial than ever. With tuition bills that often leave students saddled with loan debt, families and policymakers want more assurance that a postsecondary education will give students a better life and opportunities. Tennessee Gov. Haslam is smart to go directly to the source—employers—and ask them what they need; but those efforts will be for naught if they aren’t acted upon deliberately and quickly.